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Precocious Puberty

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Julianne is a devoted mother to her beautiful five-year-old daughter, Sarah. But all is not as it seems'something strange is stirring in Sarah's body.

Julianne is a devoted mother to her beautiful five-year-old daughter, Sarah. But all is not as it seems something strange is stirring in Sarah's body.

One bedtime, as Julianne pulled a pyjama top over her daughter's head Sarah suddenly exclaimed, "Ouch! That hurt when you touched my nipple." Julianne was surprised by her daughter's response and took a closer look. Yes, Sarah's nipples did appear to be different from what she had remembered.

Julianne's pediatrician scheduled tests that confirmed that Sarah was going through puberty. The small lumps were, in fact, breast buds. How could this be happening to a five-year-old? The doctor explained that Sarah had a condition called "precocious puberty."

Puberty in the Preteen Years

Precocious puberty, or early sexual development, is happening everywhere. It's estimated that one out of six girls aged eight may be entering puberty. The age at which puberty begins has been steadily declining. Today, the average age of first menstruation is under 12 years. Reports of early puberty have come from many countries including Canada, the US, Australia, Britain, the European Union, Asia, and the Caribbean.

A groundbreaking US study on 17,000 girls found that 27 percent of African-American and almost seven percent of Caucasian girls had the onset of secondary sexual characteristics, i.e., either breast development or pubic hair development, by the age of seven. By the time the girls turned eight-years-old, 15 percent of Caucasian girls and 50 percent of Afro-American girls were starting puberty. Even more startling was the finding that one percent of Caucasian and three percent of African-American girls showed these characteristics by the age of three.

The development of secondary sexual characteristics in girls signals the onset of important physiological and psychological changes. Girls who reach puberty earlier tend to have increased risks for hormonal imbalances including PMS, polycystic ovarian syndrome, acne, excessive facial hair, and infertility. Studies show they also have sex earlier, increase their risk of pregnancy, experience more depression and psychological stress, have more behavioural problems, are more likely to drink and smoke, have a lower IQ, and are at increased risk of suicide.

But perhaps the most disturbing consequence is the well-established risk for pre- and postmenopausal breast and ovarian cancers associated with having an early menstruation. For instance, a girl who menstruates at the age of 10 is at approximately twice the risk as a girl whose menstruation started at the age of 16. The younger a woman is when she starts her periods, the higher her risk of later developing breast cancer. Prolonged exposure to estrogens poses a risk factor for breast cancer; estrogen is known to fuel the growth of estrogen-sensitive tissue like that found in the breast.

Precocious puberty is also occurring in boys. It has now been discovered that boys as young as nine years old are developing genitalia, producing sperm, and having spontaneous erections. In addition, they have hair growth on the face, under their arms, and in the pubic area. In boys, this can mean more aggressive, violent behaviour, learning disabilities, and more drug and alcohol abuse. Early puberty also increases the incidence of testicular cancer, sterility, and shorter stature in men.

Hormone Disruptors at Work

The experts are confused about the cause. Some blame obesity. Presently one-third of Canadian children aged two to 11 are overweight and 18 percent are obese. It is now known that fat cells produce a protein called leptin, which is necessary for the progression of puberty.

Is it just fast foods and a sedentary lifestyle that's piling up the leptin-producing fat? Perhaps not. Prenatal exposure to hormone disruptors can play a role in obesity. In fact, the guilty party is looking more like hormone disruptors, human-made chemicals that mimic hormones and disturb natural hormonal balance in the body. One study found that the greater the prenatal level of the hormone disruptor polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), the earlier the onset of puberty and the heavier the girls were at age 14.

Events in Puerto Rico helped scientists understand this puzzling trend. For the past two decades, Puerto Rico has recorded the highest known incidence of premature breast development, with girls as young as two years old developing breasts.

Several causes have been cited. First of all, most of these children were fed soy infant formulas. Soy has plant-based chemicals that mimic estrogen. The daily exposure to estrogen from consuming soy formulas was six to 11 times higher than for adults. In fact, the blood concentrations in the children were 13,000 to 22,000 times higher than estrogen levels normally found in the blood!

Clues have also emerged implicating phthalates, chemical plasticizers: The breast development of the Puerto Rican children was also linked to phthalate exposure. Researchers measured the presence of phthalates in the blood of girls with precocious puberty and found that 68 percent showed high levels of phthalates.

Phthalates are now everywhere. They are used in building materials, food packaging and wrap, plastic toys, medical devices, garden hoses, shoe soles, automobile undercoating, wires and cables, carpet backing, carpet tile, pool liners, artificial leather, notebook covers, tool handles, dishwasher baskets, flea collars, insect repellents, skin emollients, hair sprays, nail polish, and perfumes.

The Silent Invasion

Hormone disruptors, like silent saboteurs, have invaded the highly sensitive endocrine systems of our children. Whether from chemical exposure in the environment, hormone-laden meats and dairy products, or chemically laced household products, exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals is now ubiquitous. Is it any wonder precocious puberty is a worldwide epidemic? The longterm consequences of early sexual development are unknown. Our children are unwitting participants in an unprecedented experiment.

Chemicals have infiltrated every aspect of modern life. Beginning in utero, our children are accumulating chemicals in their bodies. For some children, the effects may become evident early in life. For others it may take many years or even decades before the real harm&the cancers, the multiple sensitivities, the behavioural problems, the learning disabilities, the hormone imbalances, and infertility or sterility become apparent.

What Can Be Done?

Prevention, protection, and education are always the first line of action. Reduce hormone disruptors by cleaning up your immediate living environment. Substitute chemical products with nontoxic ones. Eat organic food and drink filtered water. Since children with early puberty often have allergies, food intolerances, candida, digestive problems, and high levels of toxins and heavy metals, it is imperative to correct these health problems.

If the indications are caught early, is may be possible to reverse this condition by changing diet (eliminating sugar, nonorganic foods, trans fats, etc.); eliminating exposure to toxic chemicals (i.e., in cleaning and personal care products and pesticides); and correcting the underlying health problems.

Precocious puberty may be a side effect of 21st-century living. However, there is much that can be done to ensure that our children do not become teens before their time.

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